Sneaking up on a Green Heron

At a busy park this morning there was a bird who doesn’t like to be seen, a Green Heron.

There were pigeons, ibises, cormorants and a variety of ducks in and around the large pond at Indian Riverside Park, and many people walking or sitting. But this Green Heron was not into the park scene.

He flew to a smaller pond away from the people and other birds. I followed.

From a distance, the Green Heron is a dark, stocky bird hunched on slender yellow legs at the water’s edge, often hidden behind a tangle of leaves. Seen up close, it is a striking bird with a velvet-green back, rich chestnut body, and a dark cap often raised into a short crest.

Green Herons usually hunt by wading in shallow water, but occasionally they dive for deep-water prey and need to swim back to shore—probably with help from the webs between their middle and outer toes.

Green Herons are common and widespread, but they can be hard to see at first. Whereas larger herons tend to stand prominently in open parts of wetlands, Green Herons tend to be at the edges, in shallow water, or concealed in vegetation. Visit a wetland and carefully scan the banks looking for a small, hunch-backed bird with a long, straight bill staring intently at the water.

And nearby, look for a medium-sized woman hunched over her camera staring intently at a wading bird.

There, it raised its crest briefly.

Green Herons also have much longer necks than you realize when you look at them in the typical “hunched” position. See the photo at the top of this post for the neck-extended view. Up periscope!

Hungryland and Florida’s weirdest hawk

My sister and I were texting and she asked what I was up to for the rest of the day. I said, “We’re heading out in the Jeep to a place called Hungryland.” She said, “Is that a restaurant?” Ha!

It would be a great name for a restaurant but it’s actually a WEA, a Florida Wildlife and Environmental Area. A restaurant for wildlife!

The John C. and Mariana Jones/Hungryland WEA comprises more than 16,600 acres in Martin and Palm Beach counties, seven miles west of Jupiter. Google maps location HERE.

From Wild South Florida

Jones Hungryland Wildlife and Environmental Area is a series of vast wet meadows and slash pine flatwoods, places that are wet even at the height of the dry season. The WEA and surrounding lands are part of the historic Hungryland Slough, an inhospitable place that gave refuge to Seminoles fleeing the U.S. Army during the mid-1800s. Later, it became cattle country and in the 1960s, was the proposed site of a housing development; builders dug a canal network through the site in an attempt to drain the land. Fortunately for us, they failed to file proper plans, Martin County successfully sued to stop the project and the land eventually ended up in state hands during the 1990s as the John C. and Mariana Jones Hungryland Wildlife and Environmental Area, preserved for all time.

More on Hungryland from Wild South Florida HERE.

We were Jeeping along next to the main canal when I spotted a raptor overhead and called for my husband to stop.

I snapped a few quick photos and this was my best shot…

It was a Snail Kite. I believe this is a juvenile, or maybe a female. Adult males are slate gray with white underneath.

It’s a bird that birders who travel to Florida definitely want to add to their life lists. Here is the range map for Snail Kites…

What is most notable about Snail Kites is that their diet is almost exclusively snails. Yes, escargot is on the menu at the Hungryland wildlife restaurant.

From All About Birds (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

The highly specialized Snail Kite flies on broad wings over tropical wetlands as it hunts large freshwater snails. These handsome gray-and-black raptors have a delicate, strongly curved bill that fits inside the snail shells to pull out the juicy prey inside. Unlike most other raptors, Snail Kites nest in colonies and roost communally, sometimes among other waterbirds such as herons and Anhingas. They are common in Central and South America but in the U.S. they occur only in Florida and are listed as Federally Endangered.

A snail-eating hawk? The world is full of wonders.

Snail Kites do not plunge into the water to capture snails and never use the bill to capture prey. Rather, they use their feet to capture snails at or below the surface of the water.

Snail Kite habitat consists of freshwater marshes and the shallow vegetated edges of natural and manmade lakes where apple snails can be found. Snail Kites require foraging areas that are relatively clear and open so that they can visually search for apple snails. Dense vegetation is not conducive to efficient foraging. Nearly continuous flooding of wetlands is needed to support apple snail populations that in turn sustain foraging by Snail Kites. Disposal of domestic sewage through septic tanks and runoff of nutrient-laden water from agricultural lands degrade the water quality and promote dense growth of exotic and invasive plants such as cattail, water lettuce, water hyacinth, and hydrilla, thereby reducing the ability of Snail Kites to locate apple snails.

Clean water is good for everybirdy.

Doves in love, and volunteering at the wildlife center

I spy with my little eye… two tiny doves.

This appears to be a mated pair. I would guess the bird on the right is the male, puffed up like a male pigeon trying to woo the ladies. Common Ground Doves form a pair bond that lasts a few years.

These birds flew up from the ground to this pine tree limb and I could see the pretty red-brown color under their wings – which helps distinguish them from other doves.

Columbina passerina are not much bigger than sparrows. They are found in the southernmost parts of the U.S. (like Florida) down through the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America.

I found these birds while exploring trails behind Treasure Coast Wildlife Center in Palm City, Florida, where I recently started volunteering. It’s appropriate that the first good shots of wild birds I got at TCWC were Ground Doves because that is the bird that brought me there in the first place.

My daughter found an injured ground dove in the bushes next to the front porch of her rental cottage in Rio on the evening of Sunday, March 14. I scrambled around to gently catch the dove in a cotton dishtowel, emerging from the shrubbery with twigs in my hair, then popped the bird in a cardboard box and kept it on my back porch (away from the dogs) overnight until I could bring it to the wildlife center/ hospital first thing in the morning. Its wing was pretty mangled, maybe from a cat or other predator, and I was surprised it was still alive.

When I dropped off the dove, I got to talking with the woman who was doing intakes that morning. She happened to be the executive director, and I liked her. I asked if they needed volunteers and she said, “Always.” So I started rolling up my sleeves to help birds and other creatures that Friday, March 19. (Sadly, the little dove I brought in did not survive.)

Two or three times a week, for a few hours first thing in the morning, I help clean enclosures and give the birds and other creatures fresh water. It’s all outdoors and a great way to start the day. When I was 14 years old, I wanted to be a zookeeper. I feel like I’m checking off an item from my lifetime bucket list.

And I have the admiration of my youngest daughter…

If I have photos from TCWC, I will post approved shots through their website or social media accounts before linking or sharing here. But wild birds from the property are fine to post, and there are plenty of them.

Got it!

Here’s a Great Egret with a little fish, wading in the shallow waters of the Indian River Lagoon off Hutchinson Island across from Normandy Beach in St. Lucie County.

The weather has been beautiful. Spring is the best season in Florida!

I’ve started volunteering a few mornings a week at a local wildlife center/ hospital. About 80 percent of the patients and permanent (educational) residents are birds, so I’m in my element.

Savannas bathing

The Florida peacock butterfly is abundant and easy to find in South Florida as it flies low and likes roadsides and the weedy edges of fields.

I spotted this one along Green River Parkway the other day, just before I headed into the Savannas Preserve.

This entrance is not used much. Nice wide path but mown less frequently than some trails. I had parked in a small dirt pull-out along Green River Parkway.

I was looking for birds, and a few new plants to log and learn on iNaturalist.

This, I learned, is a coastalplain staggerbush, Lyonia fruticosa, related to the fetterbush lyonia that also has little bell flowers like blueberries.

It was growing among palmettos and other shrubs. It likes pine woodlands and shrub bogs at low elevations ranging from South Carolina south through Florida.

Around the bend and open view of the shallow wetlands (freshwater basin marsh) characteristic of the Savannas.

Savannas Preserve State Park is predominantly a savanna; open grasslands with sparse South Florida slash pine trees. The park is made up of pine flatwoods, basin marsh, scrubby flatwoods, wet prairie and the Atlantic scrub ridge. Protecting southeast Florida’s largest freshwater marsh, the Savannas Preserve State Park manages over 7,000 acres.

Something pink caught my eye.

With the help of iNaturalist, I identified the pink stuff as apple snail eggs!

There are several species of apple snails in Florida and only one is native. But the birds that eat them, like limpkins and snail kites, have adapted to eat non-natives too.

I could set up a chair here and just gaze. It’s a different sort of scene from beach and ocean, but I suspect it would have the same sort of mind-clearing, happy-making effect.

A pleasant trail, marked with white blazes, it was muddy in some spots and I suspect impassable in the wettest part of the wet season.

This dragonfly is a Halloween pennant. What a wonderful job, being a namer of dragonflies!

I saw more birds flying along the road and wading in roadside ditches than here in the official preserve, but I did get one Great Egret.

Also a distant Osprey.

The term “blue mind” describes the mildly meditative state we fall into when near, in, on or under water. It’s the antidote to what we refer to as “red mind,” which is the anxious, over-connected and over-stimulated state that defines the new normal of modern life. Research has proven that spending time near the water is essential to achieving an elevated and sustained happiness.

As if you need “research” to tell you that.

The trail leads back through the woods for some Florida-style forest bathing… and flower bathing! (I just made that up. Is it a thing yet or should I invent it, find some supporting research, and write a best-selling book?)

Come to the woods for here is rest. – John Muir

Decorating the wild blue

I peeked between some pine trees yesterday and saw a Great Egret.

A slow flap of large white wings.

About five egrets passed by, one after another.

I enjoyed the flyby.

White Ibis too.

The white 4Runner is mine. I had just gotten out of the car and was standing under the pines when the white birds starting flying south along the canal that runs on the east side of Green River Parkway, at the Martin County/ St. Lucie County border.

Then came the pink bird. This Roseate Spoonbill was heading north.

I was heading south along the bike trail for a culvert where I usually see a variety of wading birds.

But for some reason they were all in the sky yesterday around noon.

Little Blue on the rocks

Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea, yesterday at Twin Rivers Park in Rocky Point, Stuart, Florida.

A small, dark heron arrayed in moody blues and purples, the Little Blue Heron is a common but inconspicuous resident of marshes and estuaries in the Southeast. They stalk shallow waters for small fish and amphibians, adopting a quiet, methodical approach that can make these gorgeous herons surprisingly easy to overlook at first glance.

Spearfishing.

Score!

Give it a shake.

Mm, a little fish for the Little Blue.

An abundance of alligators

I wasn’t happy with any of my bird photos yesterday, but I did get a couple of small American alligators.

This one had a neat spiral pattern on its back leg.

We had been out at Kitching Creek Preserve in Hobe Sound and then decided to explore a road that dead-ended at the northern side of Jonathan Dickinson State Park. The gate was closed but I hopped out of the truck with my camera because I saw a Swallow-tailed Kite. The kite whirled out of sight but I glanced down at a roadside ditch and saw first one, then another gator.

They were about 30 feet apart from each other, both holding completely still like statues in that reptilian alligator way.

I thought, if I can see two alligators right here then how many more are in the 10,000-acre state park and nature preserve just in front of me?

A quick online search reveals there are roughly 1.3 million alligators in Florida.

Wood Stork nesting season begins at Bird Island

This is a post about getting close to Wood Storks. But not too close. It’s the beginning of nesting season and we don’t want to pester them too much.

We borrowed a small boat from our boat club and heading out of Manatee Pocket towards the Five Corners then into the Indian River Lagoon.

On the way out of the Pocket, we saw dolphins. You can just see a fin in the center of the above photo.

The water in the Indian River Lagoon was clean and clear and beautiful! We liked the name of this trawler, heading north on the Intracoastal Waterway… “Quite Nice.”

Just east of Sewall’s Point, there is a small island popular with roosting and nesting water birds and wading birds.

Bird Island.

Birds ahead!

Nesting season has begun for the Wood Storks and this is a favorite spot for them in the region.

Wood Storks occur only in a few areas in the United States, so to get a look at one, head to a wetland preserve or wildlife area along the coast in Florida, South Carolina, or Georgia.

Boats are supposed to stay outside these signs, and we did. So bring your binoculars and telephoto lens.

Other birds that like Bird Island include the Brown Pelican and the Roseate Spoonbill.

Wood Storks are gangly – a little over three feet tall with a wing span of five feet. They drop their legs and feet forward like this as they near a landing spot.

A Wood Stork turning for Bird Island, with the bridge between Sewall’s Point and Hutchinson Island beyond.

Roseate Spoonbills are in the air too.

I could loiter in this spot for hours… although an east wind can bring a strong scent of bird poop.

Great Blue Heron on the sandy beach.

“Look out below. Here I come, everybody!”

Wood Storks nest in trees above standing water. They build nests in cypress swamps, in oaks in flooded impoundments, in mangroves, and in flooded areas with black gum and Australian pine. Almost any tree or shrub will do as long as standing water is present.

Wood Storks are colonial nesters, like many other bird species.

The habit of nesting in groups is believed to provide better survival against predators in several ways. Many colonies are situated in locations that are naturally free of predators. In other cases, the presence of many birds means there are more individuals available for defense. Also, synchronized breeding leads to such an abundance of offspring as to satiate predators.

For seabirds, colonies on islands have an obvious advantage over mainland colonies when it comes to protection from terrestrial predators. Other situations can also be found where bird colonies avoid predation.

I think the majority of the nesting Wood Storks in Florida are found in freshwater habitats like cypress swamps and in the Everglades. We are lucky to have a colony here on our coast.

Despite the myth that Wood Storks mate for life, pairs form at the breeding colony and stay together only for a single breeding season. Males initially are hostile to the female, but once he accepts her into the territory he starts preening her and offering her sticks.

I have never noticed Wood Storks feeding in the waters immediately around Bird Island, but I have seen them many times at freshwater ponds and marshes further inland, or in ditches along roadsides.

Some days they soar overhead on thermals like vultures or raptors.

This stork is carrying a stick back to the island. I’ve seen them “perched” awkwardly in treetops in south Sewall’s Point, noisily breaking off branches.

Males and females gather sticks from the surrounding areas. Together they build a large, bulky stick nest 3–5 feet wide. They line the nest with greenery that eventually gets covered in guano, which helps hold the nest together. Nest building typically takes 2–3 days, but the pair continues to make improvements throughout the nesting period.

We were birdwatching, but then we got a chance to do some fishwatching!

I think a tarpon was chasing these mullet. I saw a big one near our boat right before this.

Beyond is a house in the Sewall’s Point neighborhood called The Archipelago.

There are usually fish here in this little corner close to shore, but this is the first time I’ve seen a show like this.

The Great Egret was flying near the island. Note how they fold up their necks in flight, unlike Wood Storks that fly with their necks extended.

White Ibis passed the island in a V formation (necks extended).

This Brown Pelican (neck folded) passed close to our boat. Wingspan of these birds range from 6.5 to 7.5 feet!

The water was so clear, we could see underwater creatures moving here and there. This was one of two pair of Spotted Eagle Rays cruising around together, over a shallow sandy bottom.

After Bird Island, we wanted to go ashore on one of the other mangrove islands in the lagoon. We passed this one, that we have nicknamed Hot Dog Island for a couple of picnics we’ve had there.

We went ashore on Boy Scout Island (it’s real name, locally) and spent an hour swimming, exploring, idly casting a line without catching anything except rays – the kind from the sun.

The water is so clean and beautiful now, since we haven’t had any polluted and algae-laden discharges from Lake Okeechobee in a while.

The Army Corps of Engineers is rewriting their regulation schedule that determines when discharges will occur. Our local Congressman Brian Mast shares more information HERE (Army Corps Must Seize Once In A Decade Opportunity To Stop Discharges), including a link to the Army Corps email where you can share your views on this topic. I will be writing to them!

There’s no place like home

I brought my camera on a dog walk at Green River and there were ducks.

Florida Mottled Ducks were flying high and low, then landing here and there. This one walked across our path on the berm.

No other birds were close enough for a photo. It’s ducks for me today, I thought.

At home, I walked through the side gate to let the dog into the backyard. I looked up and saw a Bald Eagle right over our house!

I was agog, just looking. Then I remembered I had my camera hanging from my shoulder and I dropped everything else, dog leash, keys, hat, to lift my lens to the sky.